Mike Stobbe

ATLANTA: One child out of 88 is believed to have autism or a related disorder, an increase in the rate attributed largely to wider screening.

Advocacy groups seized on the new estimate by the federal Centers for Disease Control as further evidence that autism research and services should get more attention.

“Autism is now officially becoming an epidemic in the United States,” said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks, at a news conference where the new figures were released Thursday.

The previous estimate was one in 110. The new figure is from the latest in a series of studies that have steadily raised the government’s estimate. This new number means autism is nearly twice as common as officials said it was only five years ago, and likely affects roughly 1 million U.S. children and teens.

Health officials attribute the increase largely to better recognition of cases, through wider screening and better diagnosis. But the search for the cause of autism is really only beginning, and officials acknowledge that other factors may be helping to drive up the numbers.

For decades, the diagnosis was given only to kids with severe language, intellectual and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors. But the definition of the disorder has gradually expanded, so that now “autism” is also shorthand for a group of milder, related conditions.

Approaching her second birthday, Cristina Astacio spoke only a few words, wouldn’t respond to her name, and shunned other kids in her day-care group in New York. Last October her parents found out why — specialists said the toddler had autism.

Cristina’s parents knew autism was a possibility when Cristina failed to meet many of the developmental milestones they’d seen in their older son. But that didn’t make the diagnosis easy to accept.

“I was blaming myself, wondering if there was anything I could have done” to have prevented it, said the girl’s mother, Charisse.